This Tuesday, I will launch my chapbook of poems entitled “The Boys of Men.” This volume, a collection of poems dealing with the topics of fatherhood and mentorship, is near and dear to me, as it was originally developed as a gift for my two sons. As the poems developed, though, I began to understand how this little assembly of verses might be useful to others beyond my family. The messages, after all, cross the boundaries of bloodlines.
Ideals of trust, loyalty, persistence, and courage are universal, after all, and these poems speak of all those and more. As a bigger book of poems waits for its release just around the corner, I want to take the time to celebrate this smaller milestone; this little get-together of poems that future generations can look to for fond reflection, family connection, and perhaps even a moment or two of guidance. My purpose in publishing this book was never to get rich — rather, I wanted those close to me to have a keepsake, something intimate and direct. In this volume, I feel that’s accomplished.
As a much younger writer, I once composed a short story based upon one hunting trip I took with my grandfather. On that trip, I shot a young jake (turkey) with almost no beard, and moments later, a huge flock of larger turkeys came strutting by, including one with an earth-dragging beard. As hunting camp guests, we were limited to one bird, and these bigger ones had long spikes on their legs and weighed nearly double what my quarry did. The point of the story was supposed to be “good things come to those who wait,” but in retrospect, the amateur creative nonfiction probably missed its mark.
I thought back on that story today, though, as I received an acceptance for my manuscript Middle Class American Proverb. The book is an 85-page collection of poems based upon rural life in old Florida and its highs and lows, among other topics. Understand: I graduated from the MFA program at University of Tampa in January, and since that time, I’ve been waiting for a publisher to accept this hard-worked collection of poems which I produced as my creative thesis. I had widely submitted it long before I graduated, starting last fall. It’s been entered into contests, shopped around to academic and small presses around the country, and generally plastered everywhere I could find a spot for it in the literary community.
Many of my fellow writers wait far longer than just a few months to receive those magic words, “Your manuscript has been accepted.” In today’s market especially, poetry is not a big seller, as it is purchased mostly by other poets, literary critics, and academics. To get a volume of poetry accepted by a press, even a small one, is a near-miraculous feat. Making the process worse is that seemingly interminable period between submission and the yea or nay of publishers. As the old song says, waiting is the hardest part. Indeed.
Now, as the manuscript has found a home and the edits begin, I can breathe a little easier. Colleges and universities smile more favorably on applicants with a book or two under their belt, and the old notion of “publish or perish” still thrives at serious institutions around the country. I am incredibly grateful to my publisher, Negative Capability Press of Mobile, Alabama, for their interest in and attention to what I consider my masterpiece (thus far).
It is incredibly gratifying when editors and publishers recognize the labor and serious thought that you as an artist have invested into a work. And certainly this collection, by far, has received the best parts of my work and creativity. As the edits fall into place and the book comes to life from its manuscript form, I can hardly wait to see it emerge as the book I’ve always dreamed it to be. The process, I know, will be long. It will require the patience of a seasoned turkey hunter — or maybe that of a more experienced writer. Either way, I’m ready. This time, the first offer is one worth taking. Bigger “birds” might be out there, but this one is just right.
My family and I attended the Central Avenue Arts Festival downtown today. The booths were plentiful and colorful, with media ranging from stained glass to metal, oil-on-canvas to photography. All were dazzlingly amazing. The weather was breezy, and displays included pottery making (my two sons got to make pinch pots) and an entire “kids’ corner” devoted to letting children make and do.
Amid these other booths, there was one gentleman attempting to sell his self-published children’s books. They were on display, and people were occasionally stopping by, flipping pages and admiring them. But in comparison to the other booths, the lone book vendor lacked the sparkle and flair that other artists generated with their wares.
Certainly it wasn’t the author’s fault — his medium was simply more “subdued” than the flashier arts around him. Sometimes those of us in the literary realm find ourselves struggling with this same perception: Why should patrons trouble their minds with words when a picture will provide instant gratification? Understandably, the average consumer wants to be aesthetically pleased. Poetry appeals to all of the senses, but the reader has to work to receive its pleasure. Paintings, sculptures, or photographs, while potentially meaning-heavy, can be appreciated even by those who aren’t seeking an artist’s purpose or vision. To delve into language, however, requires cognitive investment. And so the struggle continues: How do writers (and poets especially) reach a want-it-now, get-it-now society?
One way is to increase awareness. When people know authors and poets, they are more likely to direct their attention toward the written word. Every city, town, and county has someone pursuing the writing life, and some are better known than others. About two years ago, I posted an interview I had with Mildred Greear, a North Georgia poet whose work is known regionally, and who was a friend to Byron Herbert Reese, a well-known poet of historic import. The folks in Mildred’s part of the world love her work and support it, not because they are among the literati or the poetry elite, but because, well…it’s Mildred. And to support poetry is to support her and everything she represents: a distinct geography, history, and set of ideals rolled into one. In an age where many are crying for audiences to “separate the work from the artist” and similar notions, people near Sautee-Nacoochee, GA are doing the opposite, and it works. One great ambassador for verse can make all the difference. Some of the customers who have bought Mildred’s work might not even read poems, but they see her volumes as a near-biblical necessity. If you’re living there, you need some Greear poetry on the family bookshelf.
My hope as a younger, still-emerging poet is to serve as that same kind of ambassador. Rather than being the “quiet booth” in the arts community, I hope that my literary contributions (large and small alike) help make my community a better place in much the same way Mildred’s efforts have. The more people understand the vitality of poetry and other literary arts, the more a culture thrives. And with that thriving culture, communities build understanding and mutual respect, as well.
If you support writers and artists, especially in your community, please allow me to thank you. Likewise, if you haven’t seen what kinds of creative minds are at work in your part of the world, I encourage you to do so. Attend gallery openings, public readings, book signings, and the range of other available cultural outlets that your town or city has to offer. And if you don’t find any, make one of your own — it may feel like you’re the lone voice in the wilderness, but as any good Bible scholar can tell you, those lone voices are often the most relevant. It may sound trite, but you really can make an impact for good.
I heard a minister deliver a sermon that cautioned believers against these two phrases. His point, for those within his congregation, bore validity: If the family members of a faith spend too much time in worry or regret, then they (we) are displaying a lack of confidence in our Higher Power.
For writers and creators, however, there are no two more powerful phrases. “What ifs” open the door to imagination, whereas “If onlys” encourage reflection. There’s a proud tradition behind both of these phrases yielding creative, dynamic works across genres. Consider Coleridge’s Kubla Khan — a “What If” poem if there ever was one. Scholars and speculators agree that much of the poem may have been induced by chemical means, but even so, without the questioning of reality, such language would not have existed.
For “if only” work, see Edgar Allan Poe. I don’t think a great deal of exposition is needed for this example. From Lenore to Annabel Lee, Poe’s work is rife with the “if onlys” of lost love and longing. This isn’t to say that all creative work must contain angst or fantasy; certainly much great poetry, art, and creation has been produced from the images and occurrences of “average” life (see Billy Collins). However, to exclude the questions mentioned above from the creative process would result in enormous detriment.
As artists, the need for us to pose and answer creative inquiries is great, and perhaps no two questions are more idea-inducing than these. Fellow writers and makers, delve into your what-if and if-only moments. Your Kubla Khan or your Raven may be waiting just around the next question.
Last night, I graduated from University of Tampa’s Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program. The picture you see here is the hooding ceremony. The gentlemen behind me (center) are preparing to place my MFA graduate hood upon me. I said farewells to many friends who have traveled alongside me over these last two years, and I received the hearty congratulations of family, friends, and fellow writers alike. One of my old frat brothers even showed up for the ceremony. It was bittersweet, as graduations always are: shuffling off one set of experiences to fully engage in another, saying goodbyes to greet new challenges, and reflecting on the positive memories and lessons of a long-term academic endeavor.
The question that arises after any graduation, of course, is now what? I must have been asked a dozen times yesterday about my plans for the future with this degree. My hopes are rather standard, really: I would like a full-time college teaching position, and I’d like to continue pursuing the literary life and all it has to offer. I have my name in the hat for various awards, fellowships, and publication opportunities, and I plan to continue applying for as many possibilities as I can.
Mostly, though, I plan to write. Not to oversimplify, but really, the MFA for me is a license to practice my craft in greater credibility. Now it would be questionable NOT to arise at 5 every morning and sit down to pen things out. Now it would be foolish to waste creative time and space, squandering a significant investment. More than anything, though, now is the time that I am compelled to prove the worth, the validity, and the relevance of my degree. Failing to write regularly would equal surrender, and those that know me will attest that giving up is not in my nature.
The MFA means excelsior — onward, upward, higher. May today begin that climb to a yet-unmarked summit.
Don’t get me wrong: Anyone who has read this blog for a while knows that in years past, I’ve posted the “obligatory” writing resolutions post. This year, however, I have a new perspective. Not only are resolutions cliche, they are made to be broken. “I’m going to ________ this year” ensures that most likely, the sayer of the statement will not, in fact, do whatever filled in the blank. Resolutions, because they seem forced and common, fail for the very reasons people make them in the first place. Every January 1, people around the world become motivational lemmings, jumping over the same cliff as their fellow resolutioneers. Research proves that, for the most part, people fail at keeping these well-intended goals. “Everybody’s doing it” doesn’t stop at high school, and the broken resolutions of the majority prove that the artificiality of popular sentiment will not sustain us individually as we seek after objectives in our personal and professional lives.
So as a writer, to say, “I resolve to (get my new manuscript published by Knopf, get work into The New Yorker, win the Pulitzer, etc.)” is a silly endeavor at best. One, because many of the victories of the writing life depend upon a healthy dose of reputation, timing and luck; and two, because we as authors and creators should be constantly resolving to put forth our best, not just at one time of the year. If we desire to really resolve something (in every sense of that word), it should be a daily effort rather than an annual one.
Do I have goals for 2014? Sure. Am I going to increase my likelihood of failure by framing those goals in the dime-store filigree of a resolution? Definitely not. Fellow reader, if you’ve made your resolutions for 2014, good for you. I wish you the richest of success in the year ahead. May you shed those pounds, quit smoking, write the next Dover Beach, or do whatever it is that this day inspires you toward. Best Wishes, Happy New Year, and Cheers. I’ll be at my desk.